The PR impact of rejection and denial

Modern media is making it ever easier for people to reject things that they don’t want to hear. We can scan and filter out sentiments or information that we find objectionable or which doesn’t fit with our existing world view. But rather than actively assess information before accepting or rejecting it (as proposed by Social Judgement Theory) people seem increasingly to avoid, filter or deny something that they reject out of hand.

The phenomenon of rejection is the twin of ‘confirmation bias‘, the mention of which caused some debate on a recent PR Conversations post.

Not only do people seem to predominantly seek information and opinion with which they agree, but they avoid anything that causes them cognitive dissonance or discomfort. Or if they do come across such information, they may object to it, even going so far as to call for it to be banned or removed from future view, and the originators to be prosecuted or punished.

I’m not just talking about extremist views – such as the blocking of neo-Nazi accounts on Twitter in Germany. Rather, there is the recent tendency to complain to the police about negative comments made in Tweets. In some cases, these may be justified, but in many situations rather than abuse, there is a level of distaste or discomfort with what has been said online.

In complaining or even when commenting on an issue, people show an unwillingness to engage; their mind is made up. End of story. They come across like a small child uttering the word NO, when confronted with something they don’t like the look of.

The impact of rejection and denial for PR practitioners is significant. If someone will not even consider an alternate point of view, let alone assimilate it and change their mind, we cannot enter into a dialogue with them. Most persuasive approaches to public relations rely on people attending to information – the same is true if we are managing reputations or building relationships.

On the other hand, if people never consider other perspectives, they are prey to propaganda and accepting – without question – information from particular sources or which appears to confirm existing opinion or prejudices. That may seem ideal to a PR practitioner who can rely on advocates (fans, followers, etc) to champion a cause and drown out counter-views.

We could argue that online media enables minority views to be heard, with focused communities forming around relevant issues. Where previously, the mainstream media perhaps only reflected the majority public opinion, today, activists and others who oppose something, can state their position. Like-minded individuals can flock together and avoid the ‘spiral of silence‘ that prevents people from challenging the dominant viewpoint.

These points can seem particularly relevant when reflecting on the current news relating to Lance Armstrong and, in the UK, Jimmy Savile. It would seem that those who did speak out before were coerced into remaining silent, or were ignored in the face of charity work and the influence of a famous personality. Indeed, mainstream media would seem complicit in such situations – if the later claims of ‘we knew this’ are to be viewed as anything other than pure hypocrisy and cowardliness.

In theory, social media enable challengers to conventional opinion to be heard. In practice, will they continue to be rejected and their opinions denied when they go against a majority, or a fixed viewpoint?

What may be interesting is to look for tipping points in public opinion. When those who had a strong view on a subject begin to hear the whispers and gradually the shouts of another message. The danger here can be that the shift is like a switch and the previous perspective that was accepted and advocated is rejected and the denial goes 180 degrees about face. The hero becomes villain. This may not rely on irrefutable evidence or a considered argument however, but on sheer volume of voicing the other opinion. Then, it becomes unacceptable to hold the original viewpoint – and the PR practitioner who had friends and followers, now has enemies or Tweets alone.

I am reminded (not for the first time in considering public relations) of Orwell’s 1984. Re-writing of the past is reflective of a revisionist approach to history. The ‘mutability of the past’ reminds us that there is no objective interpretation of information – it depends on how it is presented. We can look back at the words and deeds of Armstrong and Savile and now see things that were invisible to us before. It is like lifting a veil, we think – and now we have a clear view. In these cases, perhaps we do.

But the impact on PR of rejection and denial – alongside confirmation bias – is potentially very damaging. It is another step along the road to losing trust and critical reflection. And if we don’t really know what to believe, but make up our minds anyway, doesn’t that simply confirm that public relations is nothing more than propaganda?

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6 Replies to “The PR impact of rejection and denial

  1. Heather, your post highlights the dilemmas facing PR people engageg in persuasive communication.
    The target audience’s application of “confirmation bias” is a very efficient information processing tactic. It is virtually impossible to process the “tsunami” of information we get daily via the social judgement theory route.

    Perhaps PR influencers are better off applying the peripheral as opposed to the central route of persuasion (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981).

    An indirect approach is more likely to meet with resistance as it may contradict deeply held views and beliefs.

    A question that arises in connection with the Lance Armstrong and Jimmy Savile sagas is this: Is it an accident that both personalities were deeply engageg in and identified with very noble social causes? Or was this a subtle peripheral persuasion route to cover up their true personas?

    1. Don, I teach Elaboration Likelihood Model and that can be a factor here. My students debated last week that society is becoming increasingly peripheral in terms of responding to information, so that may be a factor. I think that a way around denial barriers could be co-orientation with others (perhaps drawing on Heider’s balance theory). So if they hear the same message from others they trust, it may cut through barriers. That of course, is one of the premises of traditional media relations, ie that trusted media make PR messages more credible when endorsed. So as with my response to Judy – is there something in the changing nature of modern media at work here. As PR is often said to be partly responsible for this change, it is deeply ironic if we’ve created our own problem now.

      On the Armstrong and Savile involvement with charity, it is hard to believe (well for me at least) that either was entirely sinister in motivation. But I wonder if there could be a couple of psychological aspects there. First, did they have a level of self-denial which was moderated (reducing cognitive dissonance) if they felt their good works overcame any wrong-doing (if they even allowed themselves to see it as wrong). For example, did they tell themselves they weren’t all bad? Secondly, doing good would have brought positive feelings, as well as opportunities to continue the wrong-doing, now under a blanket of others’ denial that someone doing good couldn’t possibly be so bad. Again, ironically, maybe the charitable success became associated in their minds with their weaknesses – so they became to see themselves as invincible. Both seem to have had extreme, almost pathological personalities. But despite my degree in psychology, I’m being a bit amateur in my analysis of course.

      1. what an interesting coversation!

        in my experience I can certainly confirm Heather’s description of how leaderships often allow themselves highly questionable social, moral, economic and political behaviors in the conviction that as long as they ensure results (funds, profits etc..) they are beyond any normal behavioral and often legal constraints.
        we have seen thousands of similar cases over the last few years in every form of organization, public, private, social.

        in Italy we define, mostly in non profits, ‘padre padrone’ (father-boss) the leader who can undertake whatever personal or organizational action as long as he keeps producing the ‘good’ meaning both whatever social aid the non profit is there for and the increase of volunteers.
        The rising turnover of paid staff is not an issue and usually ascribed to tother reasons rather than the impossibility of working with the boss.
        This is true also in many companies and, of course, political organizations.

        I would be happy to cite some specific examples I have recently witnessed but do not wish to overdo.

  2. I think this is one of the reasons I continue to enjoy listening to our public broadcaster, CBC Radio One, as there appears to be a genuine effort to explore more than one side to various issues, Heather. And sometimes if the person knows her or his stuff, is articulate and thoughtful (considerate to others), I find that occasionally my opinion on (usually contentious) issues might shift a bit. That is, as long as these aren’t things that affect/impact my core values.

    I’m curious to know if you’ve witness denial in particular sectors or industries (regarding public relations). Does it skew more towards one gender? What about age groups? Are the young or the old more likely to deny knowledge or debate?

    Thought-provoking piece. Or at least that’s my confirmation bias. 🙂

    1. It is an interesting point about media that explores more than one side to an issue. Traditional media are still an important influencer and if they are polemic rather than investigative in an open minded fashion, then we don’t get exposed to views that may conflict with our own.

      I think that there is denial in all sorts of PR sectors and industries – and picking up on Moloney’s ideas that PR flourished as society became increasingly pluralistic, it is interesting to reflect on the impact on the occupation if a pluralistic society becomes narrower in terms of opinions to which people are prepared to be exposed. I’m not sure why there would be any gender difference, and in age, I’ve encountered rejection of messages among students, but also with older people (eg in relation to social media). I wonder if people are more or less likely to engage in debate or denial depending on how secure they feel over an issue.

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